WASHINGTON — Whenever I want to be called a detestable, insidious proselytizer of political correctness, I just bring up the idea of changing the name of the Redskins at a family dinner. What if our football team’s name weren’t a slur, I ask brightly. Wouldn’t that be nice?
My family may disdain the ineffectively megalomaniacal Daniel Snyder — I gave my sister a “Fire Snyder” T-shirt to wear at games — but they leap to the defense of the Redskins owner at the mere suggestion that he should consider the pleas of American Indians, 10 members of Congress, the president, several sports columnists, prominent publications, little sisters or anyone else who finds the team name offensive.
“Political correctness is like a creeping skin rash in a horror movie,” says my brother Kevin, who has been going to Redskins games since he could heckle. “If you don’t stop it at the beginning, it just keeps spreading. If the Indians were not asking for this, the liberal elites would do it for them. Even seemingly innocuous nicknames such as Warriors, Braves and Indians may not survive the outcry. The once proud Stanford Indian was replaced by a tree.”
My sister argues that the Redskins should not have to change as long as the Atlanta Braves have their Tomahawk Chop and the Cleveland Indians have their logo, Chief Wahoo, a crimson-faced Indian with a big cheesy grin.
“Their logo is a disgrace,” she says. “At least our logo is a profile of a strong warrior and not someone who looks drunk.”
In the middle of budget Armageddon here, President Barack Obama found a moment to address the notoriety about the Washington team name when he was asked about it by the AP. “Obviously, people get pretty attached to team names, mascots,” said the president, who recently experienced a racist rodeo clown incident. But, he added: “I’ve got to say that if I were the owner of the team and I knew that there was a name of my team — even if it had a storied history — that was offending a sizable group of people, I’d think about changing it.”
The NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, is feeling the heat. He understands Washington a lot better than the stubborn Snyder. Goodell has enough problems with the league being stigmatized for allegedly cloaking the dangers of concussions. (Even Obama has said that, if he had a son, he would think long and hard before letting him play football.)
Goodell doesn’t want Congress pressing safety issues with the NFL and he doesn’t want to alienate people with bigotry. So why not appease critics on a name? When Snyder vowed never to change it, Goodell backed him up, calling the name a “unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect.” But as the tempest whirled, Goodell has jumped off Dan’s bus.
At the end of the NFL fall meeting here on Tuesday, Goodell told reporters that he grew up in Washington rooting for the Redskins and never considered the name “derogatory.” But, he added, “we need to listen, carefully listen, and make sure we’re doing what’s right.”
The Oneida Indian Nation grabbed the chance to hold a “Change the Mascot” symposium Monday at a Georgetown hotel. Ray Halbritter, a nation representative, called the Redskins name a “racial slur” and D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton said it was no more a term of endearment than “darkies.”
Suzan Shown Harjo, a citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes who lives here, told The New York Times’ Ken Belson that deracinating the name was “king of the mountain because it’s associated with the nation’s capital, so what happens here affects the rest of the country.”
Some big-name sports columnists have sworn off using the name. “It offends too many people,” Peter King wrote for Sports Illustrated. Christine Brennan of USA Today agreed: “Try explaining and defending the nickname to a child. It’s impossible.”
Names are deeply embedded in fans’ childhood history with teams and championship seasons. There was a recent kerfuffle in The Washington Post, with some fans wanting to return to the name of the local basketball team that was changed on the grounds it was offensive.
Asked whether he would ever switch the Washington Wizards back to the Bullets, team owner Ted Leonsis was noncommittal. The late Abe Pollin, the previous team owner, dropped the name Bullets in 1997 as a message against gun violence, saying it was in honor of his friend Yitzhak Rabin, assassinated with a pistol.
“My father was righteous, maybe even self-righteous,” my friend Bob Pollin, Abe’s son who is an economics professor, told me. “He had a moral motive for doing this. Now some find the name Wizards wimpy. They think Bullets is cooler, as in Navy SEALs shoot bullets. But I take great pride in my father having done it.”
Snyder should change the Redskins name, he said, as “an act of courage and a civic contribution.”
All you have to do is watch a Western. The term “redskin” is never a compliment.